LaJornada.pngThis is the second of two articles about Mobile Voices, a project based in Southern California. The first post can be found here.

Voces Móviles / Mobile Voices, a Los Angeles-based citizen media project, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California (ASC) and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). Mobile Voices describes itself as “a platform for immigrant workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones. [The project] helps people with limited computer access gain greater participation in the digital public sphere.”

I previously wrote about how Mobile Voices developed the software for its citizen-media platform. Recently, I spoke to Amanda Garces of the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), and Madelou, a blogger with Mobile Voices, to find out more about how laborers are actually using the platform. (Madelou asked that we not use her full name.) I wanted to find out what is working for the project, and some of the challenges it faces in bringing marginalized voices to the public.

Telling Stories

Mobile Voices is motivated by the desire to enable day laborers to tell their stories from their own perspective. It was born to provide day laborers and migrant workers a chance to write their own histories, as Garces put it, at the same time many other people and groups are trying to write it for them. They work to counteract the negative images of day laborers and immigrants created by anti-immigrant propaganda.

Anti-immigrant voices have long used blogs and websites to further their agenda. Sites such as DayLaborers.org features pictures of day laborers showing the camera the middle finger, and also lists day laborers with criminal histories as being “Most Wanted.” The day laborers, on the other hand, hardly have a presence on the Internet. There is a stark digital divide. Mobile Voices aims to close this divide. After surveys revealed most day laborers used cell phones, Mobile Voices began brainstorming a platform to use mobile phones to tell the stories of day laborers. Five active day laborers in the IDEPSCA community were selected as pilot users, and Mobile Voices began building the platform. As of now, three more bloggers have signed up via word of mouth.

The Audience

Garces said their audience is multi-layered. One group is the public and media, who do not have a good perspective on the lives of day laborers. “They need to see these stories,” Garces said, “and Mobile Voices is a platform that will generate these stories.”

Another audience is the day laborer and immigrant community itself. Finally, some of the bloggers lso want to educate city officials and employers about the life of a day laborer.

However, much of the work that is aimed towards addressing broader audiences is still in the brainstorming phase. It is very unclear what the immediate audience is like becasue the project doesn’t track a lot of its traffic. Sasha Constanza-Chock, who works on the platform, said the site needs to be redesigned in order to be more welcoming to visitors. They plan to add social media tools that will enable easy dissemination of content, and are working on getting more day laborers to start blogging.

What Has Worked?

When I asked Garces what has worked well with Mobile Voices, she immediately mentioned the dedication of the bloggers. She said their commitment to the project, and the dedication and hard work they’ve committed to create content has been impressive. As if to prove the point, Madelou told me there were many days when she spent more than eight hours covering events, which included the time required to create, edit, and submit content to Mobile Voices. Recently, for example, she visited Phoenix to cover a march against the notorious, local anti-immigrant sheriff there, Joe Arapaio. She generated eight posts, reporting with text, audio, video, and photos. Other bloggers seem similarly committed. Adolfo has written more than two blog posts a day on average since at least August 2009.

Talking to Madelou, it was clear the project has had a positive impact on the bloggers. Besides covering events, Madelou reports about others in the day laborer and immigrant community. To her, the most important thing is the need to write people’s stories as they tell it. She complains that American mass media doesn’t do a good job of presenting laborers’ stories from their perspective. She wants others to listen to the voices of those whose stories she is telling. To her, Mobile Voices provides a platform through which she can broadcast the voices of the silenced; it’s a way to break th dominance of mass media.

For Madelou, Mobile Voices filled a major gap. She was so hungry to broadcast and project voices of the immigrant community that she spent time blogging without even knowing who read or saw what she wrote. When I asked her who reads what she writes, she said she didn’t know, but that she hoped whoever came across it would find a new perspective. Other bloggers were similar.  They were all glad to find a platform to express themselves; not one of them talked about the audience.

Even though Constanza-Chock said Mobile Voices hasn’t started measuring site traffic, the response to the project has been positive. Many of the laborers were also involved in producing an IDEPSCA newspaper before they started blogging for Mobile Voices. In their latest installment, they adapted some of their blog posts for print (The PDF is here).

Challenges

So far, many of the challenges have been technical. This is partly because Mobile Voices is still in its pilot phases. More challenges may come as Mobile Voices expands the number of day laborers blogging on the site, or when the audience begins to grow. To expand the base of day laborers using Mobile Voices, IDEPSCA is designing training material. It will cover three broad sections: A section on how to use phones better and how to make sense of phone plans; a section on using cell phones to document abuses such as unpaid wages; and a section on using the Mobile Voices platform for blogging.

A challenge that Garces foresees in giving out this training is the revolving-door nature of the resource centers. Laborers are bound by work schedules and therefore make irregular visits to the center, which may make it hard for IDEPSCA to run sustained training programmes. Training is already a challenge. Garces noted that it’s an ongoing process to show bloggers how to use Mobile Voices. Some are sophisticated enough to edit audio before posting, while others are still just taking one picture and uploading it. (The longest-serving bloggers have been on the system for almost a year and a half). The time Madelou spends on some of her blogging shows that rich media uploads can require a large time commitment.

Another thing Garces worries about are new phones and plans that won’t work well with the system, especially when it comes to posting MMS messages. In this pilot phase, all but two of the bloggers are using the same phone, which were donated by Nokia for the project. (When using these phones, their MMS messages are paid for by the project.) They already had problems configuring phones, so Garces worries new ones will only cause more problems.

Finally, there is the challenge of increasing the audience of Mobile Voices. Garces told me that they are still brainstorming answers to questions David Sasaki asked in his blog post:

If one of the objectives of the blogging component of the project is to challenge the negative stereotypes against migrant workers then how do they plan on reaching readers [who are now informed by anti-immigrant sites]?

Summary

For now, Mobile Voices has created a project where a few dedicated
bloggers from the day laborer community have produced an incredible amount of content about their lives. Since November 2008, there have been more than 3,000 posts on the platform. Many questions and hurdles remain before the project can reach its general goal of bringing day laborers’ voices to the American public. Still, Mobile Voices has enabled parts of the day laborer and immigrant communities to write their own histories.

This series is cross-posted on MobileActive.org

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